Madison professor’s latest book provides harrowing account of Firestone’s 20th century exploitation in West Africa

Gregg Mitman will appear in person to discuss 'Empire of Rubber' at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Oct. 23.
The cover of Empire of Rubber is shown on the left and author Gregg Mitman is pictured on the right with a gray mustache and glasses.Gregg Mitman
Photo by Jess Parvin. Empire of Rubber courtesy of The New Press.

Forgive me, but this story has it all: Forgotten film footage; a rampant deadly virus; a famous actress; and a terrific new book of investigative scholarship, which arrives with a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

The book, “Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia,” by filmmaker, author and University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Gregg Mitman, is being heralded as “a harrowing and richly detailed account of U.S. tire manufacturer Firestone’s exploitation of Liberian workers in the 20th century.”

Among its early fans: the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who included “Empire of Rubber” on an Instagram post of her fall reading recommendations.

Mitman will discuss the new book during an in-person Wisconsin Book Festival appearance Oct. 23 at Central Library in downtown Madison.

The tale of how Mitman came to write a book on an American company’s dealings in Africa goes back two decades and is itself interesting.

Mitman is originally from Pennsylvania and came to Madison in the 1980s to pursue a doctorate in the history of science, subsequently joining the UW–Madison faculty. In 2001, Mitman was contacted about consulting on a proposed documentary film that would include rediscovered footage of a 1926 Harvard University scientific expedition to Liberia, a sovereign Black Republic in West Africa. That footage was shot by a Harvard medical student and photography buff named Loring Whitman. The expedition involved a medical and biological survey of Liberia. Whitman’s 35 mm camera footage — some six hours — and still photos captured daily life in the country: traditional dances, men at work, wildlife, vegetation, historic leaders.

The proposed documentary — which was to focus on three expeditions made by Harvard primatologist Harold Jefferson Coolidge, including the one to Liberia — never happened.

Yet Mitman was intrigued enough by the 1926 Liberia footage to begin looking into its provenance. A devastating 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 had destroyed not only lives and infrastructure in Liberia, but much of the country’s written and photographic history was also lost, increasing the importance of the Harvard expedition footage. Mitman’s interest was further piqued upon learning that the 1926 Harvard expedition was done at the behest of Firestone, which had secured a million acres of Liberian land for rubber plantations.

Mitman found that the Liberia footage belonged to Whitman’s son, who agreed on its historical importance and gave Mitman permission for its use in a potential documentary.

In 2012, as Mitman was planning a trip to Liberia with the footage — thinking he might retrace the 1926 expedition — there was an astonishing development in Madison.

Mitman was introduced to Emmanuel Urey, a UW–Madison graduate student who grew up in Liberia during the civil war. Mitman showed the Harvard footage to Urey, who was mesmerized. Urey went with Mitman to Liberia in 2012. They brought a laptop and shared the Harvard footage widely, helping Liberians rediscover their past. It proved both joyous — “That’s my father,” one man said in disbelief as he watched — and a sobering reminder of Firestone’s complicated legacy in Liberia.

Mitman’s documentary — codirected by Sarita Siegel — told the story largely through Urey’s eyes and was titled “The Land Beneath Our Feet.”

It should be noted that one of the filmmakers’ trips to Liberia — in June 2014 — led to a second, short documentary. Mitman was in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, when the first cases of the Ebola virus appeared. The documentary, focused on Urey’s family and split between the United States and Liberia, is called “In the Shadow of Ebola.”

Even as he made the films, Mitman, who has authored several earlier books, knew this too was a book in the making, and that it would center on Firestone’s actions in Liberia.

“As we traveled in Liberia,” Mitman said, when we spoke last week, “and showed the footage and photographs, it became very clear to me that a story that needed to be told was about Firestone and land dispossession in Liberia.”

Researching the book was difficult, in part because Firestone did not make its archive — once housed at the University of Akron — available to Mitman.

“It took me much longer than I anticipated,” Mitman says. “In a way I’m glad. The book really emerged from a lot of time spent in Liberia and really coming to understand the issues there in a way I wouldn’t have, had I just been in an archive somewhere in the United States.”

Firestone provided some benefit to Liberia — better infrastructure, free medical care on the plantations — but “Empire of Rubber” makes clear it came at an enormous price.

“Now,” Mitman says, “in a time of reckoning on racial injustice, one of the things that became a through line in the book is the way Firestone exported Jim Crow policies to its plant enclaves in Liberia, which is a sovereign Black republic.”

He continued: “On the plantations, you basically had 125 to 150 white managers overseeing a Liberian workforce of 30,000 plantation workers who in 1950 were earning 18 cents a day.”

Mitman dedicated “Empire of Rubber” to his friend Urey and his Liberian village of Gomu.

“They are trying to develop a kind of counter-plantation model,” Mitman says, with 40 acres of oil palm inter-cropped with other traditional and subsistence crops.

It supports a primary school that serves 100 children from four surrounding villages. The school was a dream of Urey’s, who returned to Liberia after getting his doctorate in environmental resources from UW–Madison.

Mitman was there for the school groundbreaking in 2018.

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